Chapter Twenty Seven
I was summoned before the King.
After leaving Leopold with Mike fluttering anxiously around him, I made my exit and found my way to the War Room. The men were already there and waiting when I arrived. Hector, Remi, and M. Arsnault stood as I entered, the later stepping forward to help me into my seat.
“He’s settled?” Hector asked.
“Fast asleep,” I assured him.
“Good,” he nodded then squared his shoulders, turning to his father.
“We wanted to meet with you now that you are back so that we can all review all that has come to pass in the past few weeks and agree on a plan of action as we move forward,” Felip began in slow, measured French. I nodded, signifying that I understood. “M. Arsnault has given us a full report of your time in Arcadis,” Felip continued, “and I must say that we were very upset to hear the state of affaires. It seems to me that we were correct in believing that Richard and Antoine are involved in something nefarious. However, I do not believe that we have progressed any further in accumulating evidence which would hold in a claim made against them.”
“Yes, Sir,” I confirmed. I could tell that they were building up to something.
Felip sighed, leaning back in his chair. “Has Leopold said anything since he has woken up regarding the accident?”
“Nothing,” I replied shortly. The corner of Felip’s mouth twitched, a tiny reflex marking his disapproval.
“I did not think it was right to push him and ask,” I added, when nobody spoke.
“Yes, of course. You were absolutely right,” the King assured.
Remi murmured something too fast and low for me to catch. Felip nodded once in silent reply. “Our problem is, Winifred, that we do not know where to go from here,” Felip explained. “Now that Leopold is home, and will soon be healthy again, any of the potential threat to our family’s claim to the throne has ended. Your marriage can continue as expected, solidifying your claim as well. Council will be held again once he can attend. The problem, in the most basic sense, has been solved.”
“It doesn’t take away the threat though,” I said, realizing where this was going.
“Exactly,” the King confirmed. “Which means that we will have to make some security adjustments. I cannot risk something like this happening to you or Leopold again.” He gestured towards the head of security, “Remi has made the suggestion - and I agree - that you should not return to Arcadis to finish your training at this time. It may make our interactions with France more difficult in the long run, since we will be separating you from the country both physically by keeping you here and politically through keeping you from their liaison, but it is what we are most comfortable with until things have settled.”
“We considered asking you to go back,” Hector injected, anticipating my question. “Especially since there could be something of interest found if we decided to look into the possibility of using the servants corridors to have you access more of the castle in secret. It would be a lot of potentially useless effort though when there is much safer and better uses of your time.” He smiled slightly, with a hint of knowing mischief. “We may have also added into the calculations how long it would take for Leopold to notice you were missing and freak out.”
“No, that makes sense,” I said, and it was true. My treasure hunt had been useless so far, almost embarrassingly so, and I was getting nothing accomplished training-wise in Arcadis since Richard was otherwise distracted. “But what are we going to do? Leopold can’t stay hidden forever. He is already thinking he’s going to show up at the next Council Meeting.”
“For now we will make it so that he is unable to,” Hector said. “We heard about Beaucage. If he finds out that Leopold is here in the castle then he could report back to Richard or Antoine. We can not take that chance.”
“I am going to tell Leopold that his presence is not required at Council until further notice, so that he has time to heal. That should give us more time before he starts to question us,” Felip explained. “Meanwhile, I want you to relax. We are still working on this, Winifred. Something will be found.”
“And what do I do now?” I asked, “How can I help?”
“Keep le Prince occupied,” Remi suggested.
“Yes,” Hector agreed, “He’s probably going to be pretty unhappy once he finds out how much he is not allowed to do. Phillipa has some appointments lined up for you too. Wedding stuff.”
“Do you have anything you would like to add, Winifred?” Felip asked.
“Nothing at the moment,” I said, maybe too quickly, but there was nothing else to say.
“That is all for now then,” Felip decided. “You are all dismissed.”
Hector called after me once we were free from the War Room, quickly catching up until he fell into pace beside me.
“Mom and Dad are busy tonight so we don’t have to have dinner in the dinning room,” he said. “Phillipa and I thought it would be fun if we all met up in her suites instead. Rose and Hugo will be there too.”
“Sounds good,” I agreed. It would be nice to have a relaxing evening and just hang out.
“I didn’t have the message passed along to Leopold, just in case. He’s welcome to come though. In fact, if you think he is up for it, I would ask that you encourage him to come. It would mean a lot to Phillipa.”
“Absolutely,” I told him. “I will do my best.”
The days were getting shorter now as summer was coming to its end. The sun had already started to set by the time I made it back to my room. Warm orange light filtered in through the open windows, the lazy breeze making the curtains dance. It was going to start getting cold soon. I fell back onto my bed, letting my eyes fall shut. I needed to go and check on Leopold but just wanted a minute to be still. Being back in the castle, I felt calm for the first time in weeks. Everything was finally starting to feel normal again.
“Mademoiselle!” Angela cried, running out from my closet. She stopped at the foot of my bed, ginning broadly down at me.
“You have no idea how nice it is to see you,” I said, holding my hand out to her. She grasped it, pulling me upright.
“Mademoiselle,” she repeated in meek protest then frowned as she started to pull pins out of my hair.
“I’m, serious,” I told her. “I missed having you around.
My maid hushed me as she leaned down and pulled my heels from my feet. “I am very happy to see you too, Mademoiselle. Now, come. I have run a bath for you.” I let her lead me to the bathroom, content to listen to her tiny sounds of disapproval as she took on the state of my clothes, nails, and skin.
“Is there anything else you need, Mademoiselle?” she asked softly, taking my sweater from me.
“No, but thank you. Do you know how Mike has been doing with Leopold?” I asked, hoping she had heard something though the castle network.
“Le prince slept through most of your meeting, but he is awake now,” she informed me dutifully.
I sighed and crinkled my nose, as she worked down the buttons of my blouse. “I should probably go then.”
“Wash your hair, Mademoiselle,” she instructed, pointing at the claw foot tub. “You can go and fix le Prince as soon as we are finished fixing you.”
Leopold’s room was bare now; the usual mess of clothes, papers, and books that covered every flat surface had been cleaned up in his absence. All evidence that it was usually so cluttered and well used was gone. It looked just like the countless number of empty guest rooms in the palace. There were tiny signs of Leopold’s return though, like fingerprints on a clean window, a wrinkle in the sheets, a lumpy pillow; small things, as if he were slowly re-staking his claim. I heard sharp voices coming from the cracked bathroom door and, smiling knowingly, went to investigate. They were arguing in French; Leopold’s curses followed by Mike’s quick apologies. I knocked lightly on the door and a moment later Mike’s head appeared around the door frame. “Bonjour, Mademoiselle,” Mike said, inclining his head. “We are nearly done, if you do not mind waiting a moment. Is there something in particular-”
“Let her in,” Leopold called in clipped French.
“Of course,” Mike said, opening the door further so I could pass. I thanked him, brushing past him, through a wall of hot, thick, spicy air. Mike had obviously been in the process of helping Leopold get cleaned up, as there were discarded towels piled in one corner of the room and various pieces of clothing, bottles, and tools scattered across the rest of the floor and counters. Unlike the bedroom, the state of Leopold’s bathroom had quickly deteriorated since his return. Leopold was standing in the middle of the room, his skin damp and face now clean shaven. He was in sweatpants, but his feet and chest were bare. There was a piece of fabric bunched in his right fist, which he held out for Mike to take. The butler accepted the crumpled T-shirt, shaking it out with a grumble.
“I was hoping you’d be awake,” I smiled, leaning on the counter in front of the sink. “Thought I would come and see if you were up for dinner.”
“Absolutely,” Leopold said, words muffled as Mike pulled the T-shirt over his head.
“If you prefer, Monsieur,” Mike said, “I would be happy to have food brought here. You should rest.”
“No,” Leopold said, sliding his right arm up into his sleeve. “I have had enough lying around.”
“We’ve been invited to dinner in Phillipa’s suite. I am sure everyone would be happy to visit with you,” I assured him. I wan’t too sure how long he would last with that many people around. Since he had woken up, his level of patience had been even less than it was before. Leopold started to say something in reply but then hissed in pain as Mike tried to pull the shirt down over his left side.
“If you could just bend your arm slightly, Monseigneur,” Mike requested.
Leopold glowered at him. “It doesn’t move.” I now understood what they had been arguing about before I came in. Leopold didn’t have the mobility in his left shoulder to pull his arm through the second sleeve due to his injuries. “Stop,” Leopold growled, clearly irritated.
“But, Monsieur,” Mike insisted, reaching beseechingly toward his half-dressed charge.
“Leave it,” Leopold said. Mike released his hold on the shirt, then gave a small bow and left the bathroom. Wincing, Leopold pulled the T-shirt off again using his good arm and discarded it on the floor. He sighed, eyes focusing over my shoulder, on the mirror above the sink. His face fell as he ran his fingertips over a scar on his pectoral. “I look like hell,” he murmured, watching his reflection.
I pushed away from the counter, going to him. Gently, I took his hand and placed a single kiss on its back before pulling him back towards the bedroom. “Wait here,” I said, leaving him by his couch. I went to his closet, grabbing a sweater which had a zipper up the front. “Left arm first,” I told him when I returned. Gently, I pulled the sleeve up over his arm, careful to avoid the burn on his ribs, then held the sweater up for him so that he could reach back with his other arm to pull it on.
“Thank you,” he murmured as I zipped it up. He went to his dresser, grabbing the sling Dr. Fleurion had sent him home with. He pulled it on, carefully folding his left arm inside.
“Feeling better?” I asked, almost sarcastically, taking in the restless line of his shoulders. His anxious irritation contradicting greatly with the still evident amount of energy simple actions cost him.
“Yes, actually. It feels good to be clean,” he said, indicating the door with a nudge of his chin. “What did you get up too?”
“Not much,” I lied. “Reviewed some security protocols, then got cleaned up myself.” Leopold pursed his lips, but didn’t say anything. He pulled me closer to his side, wrapping his arm around my shoulder so that he could lean into me as we descended the stairs to Phillipa’s floor. “We could have cancelled,” I offered.
Leopold shook his head. “I’m not lying in bed any longer.” The door to Phillipa’s sitting room was ajar; music flooded out into the hall along with the aroma of pizza.
“No need to be a hero,” I warned Leopold. “Just let me know if you need to leave.”
Phillipa was alone in the room when we arrived, sitting cross-legged in a plush gold armchair. She glanced up as we came in, probably expecting Hector or Rose, and then jumped to her feet, eyes growing wide as she realized it was us. “Oh, hi!” she said, “Sorry, I didn’t know you were coming.” Her voice was steady, but she was carefully guarded, even more fragile than her normally delicate appearance. It was easy to forget that Leopold and Phillipa were in fact twins. Their physical appearances and personalities were so different you would think it was impossible. What gave it away was how close they were. Not in the sense that they were the best of friends, but in the sense that they always tended to know what the other person needed most and would be the first person to jump up and defend the other. Phillipa had been the only one truly rooting for Leopold since I had arrived here, after all. The last few weeks must have been especially hard for her. She, out of all of us, had the least say in what was happening and had no choice but to let everything unfold, silently watching from the side lines, waiting to deal with whatever was left over at the end.
Leopold knew this, and saw how hurt she was. I could feel his defenses drop as he took his arm off of my shoulder’s and extended it towards her, offering a small smile. “Come here, Phillipa. It’s all right.”
Bottom lip quivering, she came to him. Too afraid to hurt him with a hug, she kept her arms at her chest, letting Leopold hold her into his right side. He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she told him, wiping at her eyes as she pulled away and flitted back to her chair. “Now eat. You are far too thin.”
Leopold rolled his eyes, but grabbed my hand, taking me with him to the sofa, happily digging in to the pizza.
“Glad to see you’re catching up on some of the meals you missed,” boomed Hector as he swung into the room. Rose and Hugo were close behind him. Their arms were filled with various other junk food, seemingly having raided the kitchen for supplies. They dumped their loot on the table.
“It is good to see you,” Hugo told Leopold, as he sat at Phillipa’s feet leaning back against the chair. He took one of the cans of beer, cracking it open. Hector sprawled across the other sofa, eating a bag of chips, with Rose sitting daintily at one end. If it hadn’t been for the silk and velvet covering on all of the furniture or the Persian rug at our feet, the scene would have looked common.
The room fell into silence, with everyone picking uncomfortably at their food. There were too many secrets right now; it was hard to find a topic that was okay to bring up. Rose managed to do it in the end. “So,” she said, clearing her throat, “when do we get to go wedding dress shopping?”
Phillipa leapt at the chance to fill the silence. “This week or next, hopefully. I have to check Bell’s schedule and have the designer called.”
“It will be fun, Fred,” Phillipa said, popping some popcorn into her mouth. “We will make a day of it. We can go and visit the church too, or arrange to do some taste testing for the menu.”
“You need to pick bridesmaids and groomsmen still too,” Rose said.
“Absolutely, as well as their dresses,” added Phillipa.
“What have you started?” Emmet complained to Rose, passing her the bag of chips. Hugo gave him a knowing look and handed him a beer. “Remember you have to share now,” Hector continued. “Fred has lots of meetings she is going to have to start attending. Your etiquette class monopoly won’t last much longer.”
I sighed, reaching for my own piece of pizza, and settled back into the couch to watch them argue.
“I am keeping her for a few days first,” Leopold declared throwing in his two cents. “We have some things that are of top priority to accomplish.”
Phillipa scoffed, “You can’t have her all of the time. You’ve just had her for nearly three weeks.”
“Yeah,” Hector agreed. “We at least get her when you’re asleep. That’s only fair.”
“We will see,” Leopold said, a bit smug, and swung his legs up onto the couch so that they rested on top of mine. Phillipa playfully threw a handful of popcorn in his general direction.
Hector frowned, looking at the bruised line along the tops of his brother’s feet that cut off an inch or so before the toes. His face smoothed after a moment, as realization hit. “A toast,” he said, raising his beer, “to steel toed boots.”
The chatter continued on a while longer, everyone steadily becoming more comfortable. Leopold grew more quiet as everyone else grew louder. I wasn’t surprised when he pressed his heel into my thigh signaling that he was ready to leave. Leopold muttered the French equivalent of “we’re gonna head out” as he picked himself up off the sofa, earning a round of ‘boos’. He held his hand up in defense.
“You don’t have to take her with you,” Phillipa complained, beseeching me with her eyes.
“I’ll check in with you tomorrow,” I promised her. “I’m tired too and really excited to have my bed back.”
“Have a good night,” Hector waved. He gave me a knowing nod as I escorted Leopold from the room and wrapped his arm around Rose.
I trailed Leopold silently through the halls and back up the stairs to our floor. He went straight through the door of his room to his dresser and grabbed the bottle of pills sitting on the top. I watched him attempt to twist the lid off with one hand. “Want help?” I asked, holding my hand out to take it from him as he tried to bite the lid off with his teeth. Leopold grunted his approval, depositing the container in my waiting hand. He swallowed the two pills that I gave him dry, then went to his desk, rifling around through the drawers until he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He jerked a cigarette from the pack and holding it between his lips, he tried to light it. When he couldn’t quite manage the motion with his right hand, he looked up at me hopefully. I firmly shook my head no. With a disgruntled sigh, he tossed the cigarette and lighter back onto his desk. I thew back the blankets, coaxing him sweetly, “Come on, get in.”
Grumbling, he shuffled over and eased himself onto the bed. Leopold pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, yawning. “I am so tired of being tired,” he said.
I placed a kiss on his forehead. “You’ll feel better soon. Sleep well.”
He sighed as I slipped out of the room. I didn’t want to disturb the sleep he needed or risk bumping into him, so I felt sleeping in my own bed was the safer option. After making the short trip to my room, stripping off my clothes and leaving them in a folded pile on the sofa, I slipped into the soft pajamas that Angela had set out for me before she left. Crawling into my large, luxurious bed, I quickly fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Some time later, I awoke to screaming and my stomach dropped. Without hesitation, I leapt from my bed and sprinted down the hall, throwing the door to Leopold’s room open. The light of the moon lit the whole room in silhouettes and long shadows. I stood there for a moment, heart pounding, as my brain tried to make sense out of what was happening. Leopold was still in his bed, his legs tangled in the blankets, hands grasping at the sheets, and skin slick with a feverish sweat. He let out another agonized cry. I went to him, approaching more cautiously now, and kneeled on the bed beside him. Reaching out, I laid a hand on his chest. Leopold startled awake with a gasp, wild eyes searching the room in panic. He threw himself upright wrenching his arm in a way which must have hurt him quite a bit. His breath was coming out in quick, short pants.
“Shhh,” I soothed, moving my hand up to cup his cheek. Leopold’s eyes found mine and his shoulders dropped. He let his head fall forward to rest in the crook of my neck, his trembling hands twisting into my night shirt.
There was the sound of heavy, booted footsteps rushing up the corridor towards us. A pair of night guards tore into the room, throwing the lights on. I blinked against the sudden brightness, but Leopold didn’t react, too focused on trying to gain control of his breathing. One of the pair broke off to secure the perimeter, the other approached the bed, bowing slightly before addressing Leopold and I. “Is every thing alright, Monseigneur, Mademoiselle?” he asked, carefully, discretely scanning us over.
“All clear,” the other one called, returning from the balcony. He came to stand next his partner, both of them looking expectantly down at us.
“I think we are okay,” It came out as a question.
“Do you require medical attention?” The first one asked.
Leopold cleared his throat. “No. Everything is alright. Sorry to alarm you.” His voice was hoarse.
The guards looked at each other, communicating silently for a moment before turning to me. I nodded at them, signally that we would be alright. “Let us know if you need anything,” the first one said, deciding to trust us. They bowed shortly before making their exit, shutting off the lights and shutting the door on their way out.
Leopold let out a big breath, his fingers loosening their hold on my shirt.
“What can I do?” I whispered.
“I’m sorry,” was his answer.
I hesitated a moment. “Do you want to talk about it?”
He gave a light grunt, wincing in pain as he lay back down, covering his eyes with the back of his arm. “It was just a nightmare.” I wasn’t sure if he was telling me or reassuring himself.
“Do you want me to stay?” Leopold was still for a moment then gave a single nod, throwing back the blankets. I crawled under them and he quickly wove his leg threw mine and clasped them hem of my shirt loosely in his right hand, anchoring himself to me. “It’s alright,” I murmured, listening as his pounding heart slowed. I placed my hand on his biceps, making gentle circles with my thumb. “I’m here. You’re safe now.”
We were slow to start the next morning. I suspected that it had less to do with the fact that our schedules were technically empty than the likelihood that the guards had informed the King about our disrupted sleep. Either way, it was nearing noon when Mike finally awoke us. I watched through squinted eyes as he laid breakfast out on the coffee table and picked things up around the room a bit. He was obviously trying to delay interrupting us for as long as possible. Leopold needed to get up and eat so he could take his medication but Mike was obviously weighing that against the fact that Leopold also needed sleep and that he would not be pleasant if he was woken up. After a few minutes, when he hesitantly approached the bedside, I decided to spare him, so I stretched, making it known that I was awake, and offered him a smile. Mike gave a quick thankful bow and went to Leopold’s dresser to busy himself with the medications.
Languidly, I ran my foot up the length of Leopold’s calf. He groaned in response, nose crinkling as his lips fell into a pout. Assured that I had succeeded in getting his attention, I pushed the sheets back and rolled out of bed, heading to the sofa. Nibbling on a piece of toast, I watched as Leopold emerged from sleep. Blurry eyed, he habitually made his way to Mike who quickly and efficiently went to work, stripping Leopold out of the sweater he still had on from the night before and applying ointment to the burn. It didn’t need to be covered with bandages any more so if he wasn’t clothed the large, red scar was fully visible the length of his left side. Mike reached for a fresh shirt but Leopold stopped him. “No need to get dressed more times than necessary,” he mumbled.
“Yes, Monsegnieur,” Mike replied and grabbed Leopold’s sling instead, fastening it in place. “Your pills are with your breakfast.”
Leopold obediently collected the pills off of his tray, chasing them down with an entire glass of orange juice. He grabbed a waffle off his plate next and fell onto the opposite side of the couch, entangling our legs in the center. I pulled the blanket from the back of the couch down to cover us. Mike vanished through one of the nearby doors. “How are you feeling this morning?” I broached, treading lightly.
Leopold looked down, frowning. “Sorry about last night. I am not certain what happened.”
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” I said. “Dr. Flurion said you may get nightmares.”
Leopold put his half-eaten waffle back on his plate, reaching instead for a mug of coffee. “Yes, but the strange thing was that I didn’t even dream about -” his mouth twisted. “I dreamed about the cliffs.”
“The one’s you bruised your shoulder on in the storm?” I checked, still a little unsure of some of the geography.
“Yes. I hadn’t dreamed of them before though, that is what is strange. It has been many weeks since that happened.” He blew on the steam of his coffee. “I am sure it was nothing.”
“We can go to the Doctor if you like.”
“No,” he said, looking up now, “I don’t see that being necessary.”
I decided to let it drop for now. After all, he could be right, the dream could mean nothing; it could just be a coincidence that it happened so soon after the accident. Everyone has bad dreams sometimes. I picked some grapes off my plate, “So what do you want to do today?”
“Well, I -” Leopold began, but was interrupted by a light knock on the door. I turned towards it, confused. No one ever came to Leopold’s room except for Mike and I who were already present. Leopold called them inside, not bothering to shift into a more appropriate position.
Rose stepped into the room, pausing just inside the doorway. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, curtsying.
“No problem, come in,” I said. “What can we do for you?”
“Phillipa sent me to come and get you,” Rose began to explain, glancing up. She started to cross the room toward us then stopped, eyes growing wide as they landed on Leopold. I followed her gaze to Leopold’s chest where the border of his burn was visible under the sling.
“Sorry,” he murmured, coffee sloshing as he put it on the table so he could pull the blanket up to cover his scar.
“What were you saying?” I asked, trying to draw her attention back to me.
Rose shook her head. “Right. Phillipa was wondering if you would be willing to meet up shortly. When she called the wedding designer, Mlle. Leroy said that she could send someone by this afternoon to do the preliminary meeting if you wished.”
“Oh!” I replied, too surprised for anything else. I glanced at Leopold.
“Go,” he encouraged. “I need to go see Felip anyway.”
When I arrived in the green room forty minutes later, it was back to business as usual. A petite blond woman stood alongside Phillipa and Rose and as I entered, she curtsied elegantly. Phillipa introduced us while I went to join them at the table. “Winifred, this is Frédérique Pascal, Vérity Leroy’s assistant.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” I told the young woman, offering her my hand. “Thank you so much for coming.”
She shook it delicately, “The pleasure is mine, truly, Mademoiselle. Mlle. Leroy is greatly honored that you have chosen her to make your wedding gown.”
“We had an appointment to see Vérity but we cancelled it when we weren’t sure where you were going to be,” Phillipa explained. “I called them back this morning to reschedule and Vérity said that although she couldn’t personally come today, she could send Frédérique to get some preliminary work done.”
“Yes,” said Frédérique solemnly. “Mlle. Leroy is very sorry that she could not come herself. She also send her condolences regarding the Prince’s condition. It is very distressing.”
“Thank you, that is very kind,” I replied. It was hard to keep up with how quickly she spoke. I had barely known her for two minutes and we had already covered a number of topics, taxing my French speaking abilities.
“If it is fine by you, Mademoiselle,” Frédérique said, digging into a large bag she had on the floor beside her. “I would like to take your measurements and go over a few basic ideas with you, to get a sense of what you are looking for. I will also need a list of any limitations we will have to work with.”
“To be honest, I haven’t really thought about it much,” I said, moving to the center of the room. Frédérique pulled a measuring tape, pen, and notebook from her bag and began measuring various parts of me, jotting down the numbers in the notebook.
“You’ve never dreamed about your wedding?” Rose asked. She was flipping though a book that Frédérique must have brought with her. The glossy pages were covered in white dresses and the Vérity Leroy insignia.
“Not really,” I admitted, lifting my arm as directed. I had never been one of those little girls to dream about her wedding day. It always seemed like something so far off in the future, with so many things that would come first, such as college and a career. I hadn’t expected that I was going to have to plan all this so soon. Plus, I had some other pretty big stuff going on and hadn’t exactly had the luxury of sitting around daydreaming about what kind of fancy dress I was going to wear. Even the wedding itself was made less exciting and more nerve-wracking by the fact that I was gaining not just one, but two kingdoms along with a husband. I didn’t think Frédérique would have appreciated that answer though, so I kept my opinions to myself, deciding instead to ask: “So what are the restrictions you mentioned?”
Phillipa spoke up, instructor voice in place, “There are certain rules that we need to follow in regards to the style of the wedding dress, all fairly standard. Essentially, it just can’t be too revealing, the skirt must reach the ground and have a train, and there must be sleeves. You have to have a white or cream veil. It must be white, or cream. Just picture the Dutchess of Cambridge’s dress, or Princess Victoria of Sweden’s.”
“Don’t worry, Mademoiselle,” Frédérique chimed in, measuring the length of my leg, “there are still many beautiful options despite being so limited.”
The meeting dragged on for another hour or so. Phillipa, Rose, and Frédérique were throwing around terms like blouson, drop waist, boat neck, jewel, capped, and tulip, faster than I could keep up with. Phillipa kept adding in historical facts about the dresses of past Princesses and Queens of Arcadis and Solis, trying to find ways in which parts of their dresses could be incorporated into the design of mine. We were finally interrupted by a forceful knock on the door. Phillipa bade the person enter, but no one came into the room, they just knocked on the door again. Intuition flickering, I glanced at Phillipa, “I think it is for me, please excuse me for a moment.”
I stood from the table, crossed the room, and stepped out into the hall, carefully pulling the door shut behind me. As I had expected, Leopold was standing there, sparking with anger. He was clumsily dressed, white shirt untucked, sleeves rolled up, and no belt. “Sorry,” he said, “apparently I am not allowed to be seen in my own house. I didn’t know how else to get to you.”
Felip had told him then, that he wasn’t allowed to work, that’s what had upset him. “We are nearly done anyway,” I said.
“Stay if you like, I just wanted to let you know I was finished, kicked out, in fact. Felip made it very clear that my presence was not welcome in any sort of business for the indefinite future,” Leopold growled out.
“It’s really not that big of a deal,” I told him softly, hoping to calm him down. I reached out to caress his cheek, “Everyone is just trying to do what is best for you. A little break from work will do you good.”
“It’s impractical,” Leopold replied, shortly. “Why should they keep holding council in the War Room when I am now able to attend. They will be delaying large amounts of work from being approved.”
“What’s one more week?” I asked, though my efforts seemed futile. I knew this wasn’t going to work.
“A lot, actually,” he replied, then took a deep breath. “I refuse to just sit around any longer. I need to do something.”
“Just give me a moment to excuse myself and I’ll be right back.” I placed a kiss on his cheek then ducked back into the meeting. Three pairs of expectant eyes watched me as I returned to the table.
“I am very sorry,” I announced, “but I am afraid that I have to go. Something has come up.”
“Oh no, of course, Mademoiselle!” Frédérique cried, starting to collect her things. “I am very sorry for taking so much of your time. I know you must be busy.”
“It was a pleasure meeting you,” I told her. “I look forward to our next visit.”
I gave Phillipa an apologetic look, but she waved it off. “Go, you have important business to attend to. I can handle the rest of the details anyway.”
“Thank you,” I told her, backing up towards the doorway. Leopold was leaning against the wall when I stepped back into the hall.
“Common,” I told him, taking hold of his hand. “I have an idea.”
“What’s that?” he asked a little too quickly. Clearly, I had peaked his interest.
“We’re going out,” I told him.
“I’m not allowed out,” Leopold countered, excitement still evident in his voice.
I flashed him a dry look. “As if that’s ever stopped you before.”
Leopold raised an eyebrow, smirking, but didn’t reply. When we had made it back to his room, I went straight for the closet.
Leopold’s swagger faltered as he saw what I had grabbed. “Fred, I wish I could, but it wouldn’t be safe. I don’t think I can drive like this.”
I handed him one of the leather jackets to hold while I pulled the other on. “It’s a good thing that I know how to drive then, isn’t it? Think you’re well enough to hold on?”
Leopold’s smile grew. “I knew there was a reason that I loved you.”
I helped him out of his sling and into his own jacket. We pulled on the hats and sunglasses I had grabbed as well. Not everyone in the castle knew that Leopold had returned. I didn’t want to risk the chance of a visitor seeing him and ruining everything. I also didn’t want anyone to see me driving off on a motorcycle with some stranger. That would only start a whole new set of rumors. With our disguises fully in place, hand in hand, we made our way down to the garage. Leopold typed in the key code and we stepped inside, heading for the far wall. I selected a pair of keys for one of the Ducatis and two helmets.
I threw my leg over the bike, turning the key in the ignition. The engine purred to life as Leopold swung himself onto the seat behind me. I could feel the adrenaline as it started to pump through my veins; It had been a while since I’d last gone riding.
Leopold arranged himself around me, his body pressed tightly to mine. “All set?” I checked, revving the engine.
“More than ready,” was the eager reply, as he gave me a squeeze. Without hesitation, I kicked the bike into gear. We shot up past the castle and through the front gates, turning out onto the streets of the old town. I knew my way around well enough now to start picking through the streets towards the coast. We rode along the tops of the cliffs for about forty minutes before Leopold squeezed my thigh to get my attention. He pointed toward where the highway forked in front of us, down towards the lower path. I obeyed, turning down onto the tiny dirt road that curved through the rocks to the ocean.
We arrived at a small pebbled beach edged by a few docks that stretched out into the water. It seemed to be a sort of inlet or cove. The water was calm, protected from the wind by the walls of stone that surrounded it. We dismounted, feet crunching in the stones, and pulled off our helmets, leaving them on the bike’s seat.
“That was amazing,” Leopold said, a sort of reverence in his tone. He looked the happiest I’d seen him in a while.
I shrugged, blushing slightly. “It’s nothing really.”
“I’m buying you a motorcycle,” he vowed, wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
“I think you have given me enough things already.” We stepped up on to one of the docks that had an old wooden boat beside it. The planks of sun bleached wood creaked under our weight as we walked to the end. I heeled out of my shoes and sat on the edge of the dock with my feet dangling into the cool water. Leopold followed suit, using my shoulder to balance as he lowered himself down beside me.
“I told Felip about the dream,” Leopold told me quietly after a moment. He turned from the ocean to face me, squinting against the sun. “He was worried after receiving the report from the guards.”
I responded slowly, almost with disinterest, afraid we were approaching too closely to questions I wasn’t supposed to be asking. “And what did he have to say?”
“He thinks it’s probably all related somehow and that my subconscious mind is slowly piecing events back together.” Leopold stated with a surprising nonchalance, as if he hadn’t just recognized for the first time that on a deep level, he was aware of what had happened to him.
It took me a moment to find a response. I reached out, taking his hand in mine. “And what do you think?”
Leopold was quiet, looking at my hand thoughtfully, then back towards the water. “He is probably right. It’s just, it’s not the accident that I am having trouble remembering.”
My breath caught. “You don’t mean - ?”
Leopold nodded, “The accident I remember. It’s everything else I have forgotten. I feel like I knew something important, something I learned right before...I just can’t remember what it is.”
“God, Leopold,” I said, unable to vocalize any other thought. It hadn’t even occurred to me that he might me able to remember what had happened in the actual crash.
He shrugged, “The rest is starting to come back now though. The smallest details will give me sudden flashes of memory, like the way the sky looks right now. It was just like that right before. I -” His voice cut off. He was angry with himself, unable to form the words to express his thoughts. His voice was hard when he finally spoke again, determined. “I need to remember.”
I reached over, rubbing my hand down his back. “Sometimes, if you try too hard to remember something, you just make it more impossible. Maybe you should relax a little bit. I can help keep you distracted; it might make remembering easier.”
Leopold nodded thoughtfully for a moment, then grinned mischievously. “You know, it might help if you tell me what everyone is not telling me.”
My eyes grew large, caught off guard. I should have known that he’d sense something was off. “I have no idea what you mean,” I stuttered.
“Mmmhmm,” was the smug reply. He sighed, leaning back onto his hand. I was forgiven for now. Clearly, he presumed that if I was keeping something from him, it was for a very good reason.
“Ready to go?” I encouraged. I hadn’t notified anyone of our plans for leaving. While I was sure that they probably knew where we were, I didn’t want to prolong the excursion too much and force someone to come and retrieve us.
“D’accord,” Leopold agreed. I stood and reached out my hand to help him up.
The ride back to the castle seemed long. The sun was starting to get lower in the sky and the wind had picked up, making it cool. I could tell Leopold was getting tired too, as he was leaning much heavier into my back. I was glad when we finally turned back through the castle gates and into the garage. The large doors swung automatically shut behind us as I cut the ignition. Leaving Leopold by the bike, I stowed the keys and helmets away, before retuning to him. I reached for Leopold’s hand, expecting him to walk with me up to the castle for dinner. Instead, he pulled me back to him, pushing me up against a nearby car, and kissed me fully on the lips. As I wrapped my hands around his neck, he deepened the kiss pressing himself closer. His mouth was commanding. His chapped lips roughly capturing and sucking, his hand knotting roughly in my hair. I could feel all of his frustration, and worry and pain in the hardness of his mouth. All my sense sparked to life. Somewhere deep in my mind I knew we should stop, that I might hurt him, but I couldn’t make myself do it. In the pure silence of the garage the sound of our ragged breaths was deafening. My tongue flicked teasingly against his, encouraging him. Leopold growled, pulling back to rest his forehead on mine. The smell was his cologne, mixed with leather and gasoline swirled headily around me.
“So,” he murmured, brushing our noses together, “how exactly do you plan to distract me next?”
“Don’t you worry,” I breathed, pressing my lips to his once more. “I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve yet.”
Leopold hummed, placing a lingering kiss on my pulse point. “I look forward to it,” he murmured, then pushed away, heading towards the exit, “Don’t forget your disguise, ma chère,”